Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 12 Jan 2004 13:43:23 -0500

Winter Is Cool

RUNNING COMMENTARY 501

(rerun from January 1996 RW)

My winters aren't what they used to be. Now that I've pulled up my Midwest roots and replanted them near the Pacific, only a few days each year dip just below freezing. This passes as winter in Oregon.

I don't miss true winters and can't call this my favorite season. But no other has served me better, longer.

Winter first made me a runner. Without it, I might not be running in any season now.

After failing at basketball one January in high school, my track training started early. Remember, this was Iowa in the late 1950s, when hardly anyone ran before spring broke out.

That track season, my mile PR dropped by more than 20 seconds. I placed in the state meet for the first time.

Nothing hooks a kid quicker on a sport than some low-grade success. This was my first taste of it as a runner.

I imagined then that hard training and a talent for the sport had led to this breakthrough. Now I know that it was neither.

My training load was laughable by today's standards. I averaged less than 10 miles a week that first winter.

My talent was nothing special. In any random group of 10 teenagers at the time, seven would have been stronger and three faster. My edge -- my only one -- was winter running.

Any U.S. runner not living on the southern and western fringes of the country still deals with real winters. If you do, you might be asking the same questions I did in 1959.

You're between racing seasons and thinking about what to do this winter to hold onto some of your running fitness, if not improve upon it. You'd like keep running but wonder about the wisdom of going out in the cold.

Runners still harbor unnatural fears of winter, thinking their lungs might turn to popsicles if they breathe the icy air. So I sneak up on the subject of going outdoors by talking of indoor substitutes.

Run, hamster-like, on an indoor track or treadmill if you can find one. Swim, play basketball, lift weights. Almost anything you do will be better than hibernating for the next several months.

But don't just accept substitutes. The best training for running is running, and running at its best is an outdoor sport.

Most days, you can get out and do something. Few winter days are so deep-frozen that running is foolishly risky.

In fact, the cold air is the least of a runner's problems this time of year. The running body quickly makes the temperature feel 20 degrees warmer than the true reading.

What starts as a sub-freezing run soon seems like the cozy 40s to 50s. You plan the running -- and dress for it -- with this warming effect in mind, not by how the day feels when you first poke your nose out the door.

Your main winter threat isn't the air around you but the ground beneath you. Sidewalks and shoulders are often snow-drifted, streets ice-crusted.

You compete more directly with drivers for space on the cleared roads, and in more hours of darkness. This confrontation is by far your greatest wintertime risk.

Winter forces flexibility into your routine. You run whenever, whatever and wherever you can.

You can't expect to run normally every day. Instead you hope to for three or four good runs a week, however the conditions let you take them.

Plant the seeds of warm-weather success in the cold. You don't need to do much running then to get a jump on people who aren't moving at all.

UPDATE. This year started with a rare taste of real winter in Oregon. First came heavy, wet snow, followed by freezing rain that turned every exposed surface into an ice rink.

The treacherous streets forced my university running class indoors for only the second time in four years. I slipped outside.

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